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Alleged Affair of Google Co-Founder Brin Raises Ethical Issues

Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin’s alleged affair with a Google employee is raising questions about potential conflicts of interest, damage to morale and the company’s relationship-conduct rules.

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Google has confirmed that Brin, who owns about $21 billion worth of Google stock, is splitting from his wife of six years, Anne Wojcicki, CEO of 23andMe. Valleywag reported that Brin has been involved with Amanda Rosenberg, the product marketing manager for Google Glass. AllThingsD confirmed that Brin was involved with an unnamed Google employee.

Google did not respond to further requests for comment.

Discouraged, not prohibited

Under the company’s Code of Conduct, relationships among employees are discouraged but not prohibited.

“Romantic relationships between co-workers can, depending on the work roles and respective positions of the co-workers involved, create an actual or apparent conflict of interest,” the policy states. “If a romantic relationship does create an actual or apparent conflict, it may require changes to work arrangements or even the termination of employment of either or both individuals involved.”

Brin does not run the Google Glass project, although he has been a strong supporter in public. He participated in New York events to popularize the high-tech glasses in the spring alongside Rosenberg, who coined the phrase "Ok, Glass."

It is not known whether Brin informed anyone in Google’s ethics and compliance division or on its board of directors about the relationship, as suggested by the Code of Conduct.

Google’s vice president of Android product management, Hugo Barra, who was Rosenberg's former boyfriend, said yesterday he was quitting Google to join Chinese smartphone maker Xioami. But several reports said the change was unrelated to Brin's alleged involvement with Rosenberg.

"Myriad concerns"

"Relationships between senior executives and more-junior employees raise myriad concerns," says James McRitchie, publisher of the website Corporate Governance. “Dating a subordinate is generally a bad idea, from the company's perspective,” he says, citing the potential for upsetting employee morale, violations of confidentiality and other issues.

“Why do you have policies discouraging these kinds of relationships?” asks Jim Balassone, a former executive at Hitachi Data and IBM (IBM) who now directs the business ethics programs at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. “It’s because there is always going to be a disparate amount of power. There could be undue pressure or conflicts of interest.”

Sometimes such relationships can blow up and cause major damage, Balassone notes. Former Hewlett Packard (HPQ) CEO Mark Hurd was asked to resign amid allegations he had an inappropriate relationship with a woman who worked for him. The woman, Jodie Fisher, charged that Hurd pressured her to have a sexual relationship. HP’s board said it uncovered no violations of the company’s sexual harassment policy but held Hurd responsible for other irregularities. Hurd and Fisher came to a private settlement.

Absent those kind of blockbuster charges, the Google relationship may not raise any such serious concerns, says David Costanza, a professor at George Washington University who specializes in leadership and personnel psychology.

Rosenberg’s “division reports up the chain but the connection is pretty distant,” Costanza says. “Unless the employee claims hostile work environment or quid pro quo — the two types of sexual harassment — undue pressure and influence seem not to be an issue.”

Another possible concern arising from Brin’s divorce is that Wojcicki’s sister, Susan, is Google’s senior vice president for advertising and commerce. But Susan Wojcicki reports to CEO Larry Page, not Brin.

“Unless something else comes to light that materially impacts the company, my guess is that this a non-issue that will be forgotten by the next news cycle,” Costanza says.

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